you don't have to do this

you do have to do some other stuff though

Here’s a little secret you have already figured out: I do not plan these newsletters out. I write all of them day-of. Sometimes they’re about things I’ve been thinking about for a while, and those are easy. Sometimes they’re just me looking at stuff that day and seeing if there is any meaning to extract, and they are published later in the day, and generally, these ones are worse.

We’re five days into the new year and it seems like the theme of this year, for me, is gonna be “You don’t have to do this.” I encourage all of you to also take this to heart. Over the weekend, for instance, I had to hear about Bean Dad, which I refuse to dwell on. (You can google it if you need more info, because it got big enough, but here’s the short version: a guy on Twitter wrote one of those overwrought threads about teaching his daughter to use a can opener and people took issue with it to such an extent that he deactivated his account and then wrote a long apology. The reason this happened is because Twitter is a poorly automated megaphone that rewards all engagement equally, regardless of said engagement’s actual value.)

I did not do a deep investigation on what was happening because it was very clear that Bean Dad was more of the same largely invented controversy that Twitter users love to pile onto (someone said something dumb, someone else went back and found inartful phrasing in tweets from 2013 that only makes sense in a discursive context that doesn’t exist anymore, everyone else picked a side) except it was a bit funnier because the guy was called Bean Dad. You get a lot of mileage out of a funny nickname. There’s no secret lesson to be derived from this particular event — this sums it up pretty well — that could not have also come from countless previous similar events. The lesson is: Tweets should be treated as fully public and any that are older than two years are best lost to time.

So again, I just want to emphasize that you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to post about whatever the controversy of the day is, you don’t even have to have an opinion on it. For a while, the slogan of this newsletter was “I’m online so you don’t have to be” but generally I try to cover stuff that genuinely grabs me. Bean Dad did not clear the bar.

However, because it happened so early in the year, and at such a scale, I think it’s worth going over some survival mechanisms.

Get a group chat

If you don’t already have a private forum for discussing dumb stuff that happens online, get one. A Slack, a Discord server, an iMessage thread, a listserv — literally anything that lets you feel the catharsis of having your take heard without blasting it out to an indexed, searchable public database forever. This goes without saying, but it should not be people that you work with. Once you have this private forum, you might be shocked at how little you have to say publicly. I used to tweet an embarrassing amount. Now I tweet less (still too much) but only about things that actually pique my interest. Unless you’re an aspiring comedian too lazy to write original material, you do not need to have an opinion on Bean Dad.

There’s a corollary to this…

Platforms are not community

I really want to emphasize this because there are so many other people that will tell you otherwise. “Twitter users” and “Facebook users” and “TikTok users” and “YouTube users” and so on are not singular communities. They are too large to have any cohesion. Spending time on any of these sites, scrolling through feeds can be fun and informative and a nice waste of time or reprieve from work, but you do not belong to something real merely by participating in the trending conversations on these sites. It’s empty calories — which, again, have some use — but they’re not the whole thing.

That’s something I’m really trying to keep in mind this year. Meme culture (trends that spread far and wide) is but a subset of internet culture (stuff that happens on the internet), and so much of meme culture is on autopilot these days. It feels inorganic, algorithmically juiced, and participating in it makes me feel good in the moment and bad in retrospect almost immediately.

So, I’m trying to do all of that less, and I recommend you do the same.

There’s a good essay by Robin Sloan that I read last February that I was recently reminded of, about how he built an app for just his family, and I think it’s a good way to think about the coming year. Re: the phrase “learn to code,”

But let’s substitute a different phrase: “learn to cook.” People don’t only learn to cook so they can become chefs. Some do! But far more people learn to cook so they can eat better, or more affordably, or in a specific way. Or because they want to carry on a tradition. Sometimes they learn just because they’re bored! Or even because—get this—they love spending time with the person who’s teaching them.

The list of reasons to “learn to cook” overflows, and only a handful have anything to do with the marketplace. This feels natural; anyone who has ever, like… eaten a meal… of any kind… recognizes that cooking is marbled deeply into domesticity and comfort, nerdiness and curiosity, health and love.

Well, it’s the 21st century now, and I suspect that many of the people you love are waiting inside the pocket computer you are never long without, so I will gently suggest that perhaps coding might be marbled the same way.

And, when you free programming from the requirement to be general and professional and scalable, it becomes a different activity altogether, just as cooking at home is really nothing like cooking in a commercial kitchen. I can report to you: not only is this different activity rewarding in almost exactly the same way that cooking for someone you love is rewarding, there’s another feeling, one that persists as you use the app together. I have struggled with words for this, but/and I think it might be the crux of the whole thing[.]

I’m trying to keep this kind of thing in the back of my mind whenever I log on. Doing stuff mostly for a discreet audience who knows where I’m coming from, rather than trying to scale at any cost. This feeling has been exacerbated by time spent on TikTok, where worth on the platform — far more than any other I’ve surveyed — is measured based not on the substance of what people post but on engagement metrics. An insane platform of meta-performance where nothing is completely genuine.

So I’m trying to do other stuff. Tweeting less, making my Instagram account private (and I barely post on it anymore), saving my thoughts for stuff like this newsletter — which is partially why I sent out that survey last month. In general, trying to cater to people directly rather than via trend algorithms. Which sounds really self-righteous when I put it that way.

A side effect of being confined to my apartment for most of the year is I’m not using my phone a ton, which has led to what I’m calling “sit-down computing.” That’s how things used to be not so long ago! You sat down at a desk and were online and then stood up and walked away and you were offline. It seems novel now but I’m trying to get that back. Clearly, I will always care about dumb goofy shit that happens online, but there are so many “internet things” that have the same general contours with only the proper nouns swapped out and it is not fun anymore to focus on the Bean Dads of the world. Maybe it never has been.

I’m trying to do more dumb projects this year. Here’s a photobooth website I made (more on that on Friday).

Anyway, kinda ramble-y, but my point is that anomalies are now more interesting than patterns. So I’m gonna try and find more anomalies this year and do more small stuff. We’ll see how that shakes out.

what you missed

Last week, I sent out a quick email announcing that BNet would be doing a livestream to celebrate Flash, which died at the end of 2020. Substack — an increasingly important email service that’s getting tons of press for making it easy for anyone to monetize their personal brand and devoted audience — just straight up did not send any of you that email. Like, it just didn’t fire. Seems like a fucking insane thing for a newsletter platform to have happen, but whatever. You can see the archive here. It was fun! Maybe we’ll do more this year.


(from the last bnet nobody received)

(some new stuff)